Zikz bringing unique perspective, championship experience to 100 Thieves

by Brian Bencomo

Leading a North American team to a championship final at an international esports competition is no small feat; NA teams haven’t historically been powerhouses in most esports. But that’s exactly what 100 Thieves VALORANT head coach Tony “Zikz” Gray did in 2016 -- in League of Legends.

Zikz, who was in his second year as head coach, led CLG to the Mid-Season Invitational final, where the North American team fell to SKT and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok who was beginning to build his legacy as the GOAT in League of Legends. Last year, Zikz won VALORANT Champions as an assistant coach with Evil Geniuses. Now, he’s bringing years of expertise in two very different games to 100 Thieves as he is once again a head coach.

What Zikz brings to 100 Thieves

“I would say in general I probably have one of the most unique perspectives to anybody in this scene, just because I came from another game where there's like an entirely different set of rules,” he told me in a media interview a couple weeks before the start of the VCT Americas 2024 season. “So I kind of see the macro side of things very differently than a lot of coaches do, and I think that a lot of that showed in how we played as well last year with EG.”

Although VALORANT is a first-person shooting (FPS) game, whereas League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, Zikz sees parallels in terms of how to approach teamfighting.

Then-CLG head coach Zikz stands behind Stixxay before a League of Legends match. Photo credit: Riot Games

“In League of Legends, a very popular in North American concept was five-group mid, and just death ball together -- go fight,” he said. “I think this game is kind of in that state a lot of the time now because it's very easy to visualize five people going and just fighting something together and be like, ‘Oh, look how many trades we're getting, like it's super good.’”

“Chinese teams and Korean teams in League of Legends are amazing at teamfighting, not because they five-man death ball, but because they're able to maintain a lot of space and live while they're around you,” he continued. “And it feels much more pressuring, even though it's a bit counterintuitive to be separated and applying your pressure that way. … I think on EG we were very good at this concept. Just people basically being able to be alone without dying, maintain space and take space where you can for free because people made mistakes.”

That unique perspective is just one of the upgrades Zikz will be bringing to 100 Thieves. He also learned a lot about emphasizing FPS fundamentals from EG head coach Christine “potter” Chi.

Read more: Potter will try to overcome the odds with Evil Geniuses, again

“I think Potter is very good at the CS fundamental kind of focus and making sure that people are doing those small details well, and kind of like drilling those reps in,” he said. “That's definitely her primary focus, getting a s--- ton of reps doing the same thing, so that you can get through all the details. I think that that's like one of those super good qualities I definitely am moving into this team.”

Zikz poses for a photo with EG after a big win. Photo credit: Colin Young-Wolff / Riot Games

However, Zikz won’t be able to drill reps as much or in the same way EG was able to last year. Evil Geniuses notably had a secondary roster which the main roster practiced against throughout the year. Having that roster was essential for EG’s main roster to practice plays over and over again. Zikz noted that with esports winter setting in and a tighter budget at 100T, he won’t have the luxury of having a secondary roster to have his main roster practice with, so he’ll have to get creative when it comes to drilling fundamentals.

100 Thieves’ Evil plan

Another tool Zikz has brought along to 100T is the expertise and leadership of EG’s former in-game leader Kelden “Boostio” Pupello. When Zikz was hired by 100 Thieves, one of his priorities was signing Boostio.

“The thing I really really like about Boosti is Boosti is -- I have this thing where it's like, I always come into any team that I join, I say, the only thing I care about is that you're open and honest,” Zikz said. “I just want people to talk to each other … if you think someone's messing something up and it's affecting you, bring it up to him, it's fine, we're gonna have arguments on the team, everybody's here to win. And Boosti lives that, you know. So it's like, what better IGL to have than a guy that's living the exact culture that you want to build within a team?”

Boostio pumps his fist after a big play. Photo credit: Colin Young-Wolff / Riot Games

That type of leadership is what 100 Thieves was looking for when they signed Zikz in the offseason to replace former head coach Michael "Mikes" Hockom, who is now the team’s assistant coach.

“They felt like Mike did a great job strategically with the team, and they thought that, you know, they really liked his work ethic and all of these things, but that they really wanted, basically someone with really, really solid leadership skills and a clear direction of where they wanted to take things,” Zikz said.

It’s not hard to see why Zikz was 100 Thieves’ choice. His last head coaching gig was as 100 Thieves’ League of Legends head coach in 2021, and 100 VP of Esports Jacob “Maelk” Toft-Andersen knew him well from that time and reached out to offer him this opportunity. Plus, it helps that Zikz had just won Champions.

Read more: VCT Americas Kickoff 2024: Schedule, format, teams and storylines

Zikz’s exit from Evil Geniuses was easy, in contrast to Boostio and the rest of the championship players who ultimately left. His contract was up at the end of the 2023 season, and he had conveyed his intentions to ultimately become a head coach to now former EG general manager Andrew Barton.

“I always told him, and he knew as well, my goal really wasn't to be an assistant coach, and I just knew it was like a stepping stone to get to eventually becoming a head coach again,” Zikz said. “I coached in the LCS for, you know, about seven years or so, and then I knew I could head coach again in another game ,so we had that very blunt conversation that I wasn't gonna sign more than a one-year [contract], and he understood that.”

With the players signed to multiyear deals and Evil Geniuses keeping their players in “contract jail” due to the org’s financial issues, acquiring Boostio was never a sure thing, but Zikz was confident 100T would eventually get him.

“NaturE was always kind of our backup in the event that it would never work out,” Zikz said. “But so we did have our backup in mind, but we were pretty certain given the state of EG and how they had been, you know, making decisions business-wise, that they were going to go full budget and you know, they're not going to pay these players that much money to keep them, so we were pretty confident I'd say the whole time since the beginning of offseason that it was gonna happen.”

100 Thieves’ 2024 outlook

Zikz oversees 100 Thieves' League of Legends team when he was their head coach. Photo credit: Riot Games

Boostio officially joined 100T in early January, which gave him just a few days to get acclimated with his new team ahead of their participation in the Ludwig x Tarik Invitational offseason tournament.

“We only had about maybe 10 days of practice with Boosti before we played in that tournament, Zikz said. “I'd say overall, it was a good tournament for … Boosti to get used to all of the guys along with him building the experience of understanding how these guys are different because everybody's going to be a bit different, right? Match versus scrims. So it's a good experience for both of us to be able to experience that. I also wanted to see, you know, because Boosti has a specific dynamic that he had with EG -- I wanted to see how that also transfers with this new group.”

100 Thieves lost both of their matches to Oxygen Esports and Cloud9, but the results weren’t important to Zikz. It was all about getting the team ready for the VCT season.

“I'm super process oriented,” Zikz said. “I really don't care about the results because if you focus too much on the results you're gonna, you know, not actually improve day by day, you need to focus on what's going to make your team better day by day. And that's mostly what we wanted to take away from it. Win or lose the tournament, we just wanted to come in and get the reps for Boosti so that he could understand what's different with each person.”

Read more: VCT Americas debut finally near for G2, former Guard players

The results will start to matter a bit more once 100 Thieves start their 2024 VCT season with a match against Leviatán on Saturday, Feb. 17, in the opening round of the VCT Americas Kickoff tournament.

Zikz said there’s not much scouting he can do on their opponent as Lev’s roster is very different from last year and they didn’t have any official offseason matches with their newest player, Corbin “C0M” Lee. C0M is, of course, a former EG player, so zeroing on his tendencies is one of the things Zikz can prepare for.

Zikz and C0M arrive for a VALORANT match. Photo credit: Lui YuCun / Riot Games

With Evil Geniuses’ championship players now scattered across a few teams, facing C0M and Leviatán is just one of several fun matchups that Zikz is looking forward to this year.

“I really want to play NRG,” Zikz said. “I feel like NRG is a fun one because since I swapped from League to VALORANT, I've always teamed with Ethan the entire time, so me and Ethan throughout all of last year, we're pretty close.”

Both Ethan “Ethan” Arnold and Max “Demon1” Mazanov joined NRG via Evil Geniuses to form what many fans, players and experts are calling a superteam. Nobody is throwing around such high praise for 100 Thieves’ roster. Despite a world championship coach and IGL, they’re considered an underdog in a VCT Americas Kickoff group that includes world champions and popular players on Leviatán, LOUD and Sentinels. Zikz is just fine flying under the radar.

“I would say we're criminally underrated for the group,” Zikz said. “I guess it's just because people don't really, they don't really get to see scrims and really understand the progression we're making, and obviously we didn't have too good performances at these internationals that were, you know, offseason tournaments. So I'm down for them to keep underrating us, because at the end of the day, you know, it's less pressure on us.”

Lead photo credit: Colin Young-Wolff / Riot Games

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